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Expression and Truth On the Music of Knowledge

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Wittgenstein, Music, and the Aroma of Coffee

Expression is Description.

What does music express? The question is an old chestnut, and I raise it here not because I propose to answer it in some dramatic new way, but precisely because I don't. When asked concretely what a particular piece of music expresses here or there, we usually mumble out some vague, relatively stereotyped statement, from which we customarily conclude that we really can't say what music expresses. We often follow up by saying that this inexpressible expressiveness is one of the things we like best about music. In what follows I will be defending the first half of this scenario and dismissing the second. The vague statements are all right, in much the same way that Ludwig Wittgenstein famously said that ordinary language is all right. Wittgenstein, in fact, will be my chief interlocutor here and throughout this book, a kind of duet partner, alternately playing primo and secundo.

But as for music's ineffability, for that is the issue at stake when we mumble, this notion represents an error very much like the notion that we cannot know other minds (something else that exercised Wittgenstein, who could never quite make up his own mind about it). As J. L. Austin showed in a classic essay, it all depends on what you mean by "know."1 Can I form a reasonable estimate of what someone else is thinking? Of course I can. Can I think exactly the same thought, amid the same sensations, as if I were myself the other person? Of course I can't. If I blurt out the comment that a certain musical passage is thoughtful, say, or poignant, my comment is obviously inadequate only if I am trying to reproduce in words the exact experience of listening to the music. But of course I'm not-unless, perhaps, I'm Proust, who had the advantage of writing at length about music that doesn't exist.

The question of musical expression may nowadays seem less urgent than it once did. Recent thinking on what music is "about" has concentrated more on its social than on its expressive force.2 This tendency connects with the desire for a historically grounded understanding of musical meaning and it breaks with the tradition of treating feelings, the presumed substance of expression, as universals unaffected by history. My own work promotes this tendency, which I do not propose to curb or divert. Yet the question of musical expression deserves revival, because, as I hope to show before I'm through, the stakes underlying it have significant broader implications both for and beyond the way we understand music. Only if we have an adequate understanding of musical expression can we begin to understand the wider role of music in acoustic experience and the auditory culture that draws on it.

But let's raise the stakes: only if we have an adequate understanding of musical expression can we begin to understand expression in general and the complex ties between the two terms that give this book its title: expression and truth.


The first performance of Brahms's Clarinet Quintet was held in the grand Viennese home in which Wittgenstein grew up. Brahms was a frequent visitor at the Palais Wittgenstein, as were Mahler, Clara Schumann, and Bruno Walter. Ludwig's early years were drenched in the music prized by the Viennese classical tradition. This music was second nature to him; his love of it went without saying. Perhaps too much without saying: for he rarely wrote about it. It seems likely that he kept mute because the music spoke too eloquently. It meant too much to be talked about. Wittgenstein's attitude towards it was ascetic, almost renunciatory, in keeping with the monastic discipline that ruled his personal life. Words and pictures, his constant preoccupations, did not pose the dangers, the temptations of music: the sensuous and emotional immediacy, the power over memory, the cognitive pliability. Yet Wittgenstein could not remain altogether silent about it,